Lens work 3 – my images

Both of the examples below, from my own 2015 ‘Large Format 52’ project, show use of selective focus to isolate detail and focus attention.

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‘Reed’

In ‘Reed’ I had pre-visualised the idea of a reed head with a very out-of-focus background, and spent some time experimenting with aperture, eventually settling on f/8 with a 150mm lens on 5×4. I found the background tree first, set against the water of the lake, then found an isolated reed. I like the image because I believe it says something about the sort of wetland locations that reed grows in.

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‘Into the unknown’

In ‘Into the unknown’ I made use of camera movements to deal with perspective and to place the plane of focus horizontally on the third step (with the left shoe) so that the staircase blurred progressively above and below our imaginary walker. With hindsight, I should have focused on the second step in order to maintain reasonable sharpness in the step below, and to blur the upper part of the staircase further.

The same effect could be imitated in software, such as Nik Analog Efex but I prefer to do it in-camera and ‘old school’.

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Lens work 2 – shallow field

In this posting, I look at some examples of the creative use of shallow depth of field, which has the effect of isolating details and directing the eye.

One photographer who takes this to extremes is Gianluca Cosci (website here) Three of his projects use the device in some form.

‘Hidden’ is comparatively conventional, having mostly focused building facades revealed behind a much closer and out-of-focus corner of a nearer building. Occasionally, this is reversed and it is the nearer detail that is in focus.

Many of the images in ‘Fragments’ and ‘Panum et Circenses’ (referencing Juvenal’s comment about Roman emperors’ ploys to keep the  populace happy) show a very thin sliver of sharp focus close to the camera while the majority of the image is given over to focus blur. (Incidentally, the example given in the course notes is from ‘Fragments’) Oddly, the sharp zones do not appear to be the main subject (in one case it is a slice of paving) but some of the blur appears familiar. In ‘Panum et Circenses’ I recognised Canary Wharf and the Churchill statue in Parliament Square. The reason for the treatment is not obvious on first viewing but Cosci explains it thus (on the Statement page of his website), “I am interested in the point of view of the loser, the marginalised. Often we are forced to have only restricted views, uncomfortable to maintain. In spite of this, I believe that one can take advantage of this apparent fault and use it to observe and understand things in a different, unexpected way.” Certainly, the photographic style gives his restricted and uncomfortable views.

Mona Kuhn (website here) produces large-scale photographs of the human form, usually nude. The images are not erotic or particularly romantic, but show her subjects at ease with themselves. The example below is from her first book, ‘Photographs’

In this image we focus on the woman’s face, particularly her eye and we are aware that she is nude (or at least ‘implied nude’) and that there is a naked man in the background. Only the woman’s eye, nose and mouth are sharply focused; the ear and most of her hair are distinctly unsharp and the background man is almost an abstract shape. In other images, she uses the same device as Cosci (although less extreme) with the main subject blurred and a seemingly trivial foreground object in focus, which gives a more dreamlike interpretation.

Kim Kirkpatrick (website here) is a landscape photographer specialising in ‘pictures where nature and man meet, where one is taking over the other’ (Kirkpatrick 2001, reported on Wikipedia). In examples of his early work he contrasts sharp foreground details with blurred backgrounds.

In this example a window-blind pull suggests the presence of a window and we see some form of construction outside. In another, it is a twig and leaf that are in focus an a window seen beyond.

The same selective-focus device is often seen in sports photography but, in that case, it is a by-product of selecting a fast shutter speed to freeze action thus requiring a wide aperture to compensate.

References

Cosci, G. (s.d.) Gianluca Cosci Visual Art [online] at: http://www.gianlucacosci.com (accessed 9 April 2016)

Kirkpatrick, K. (s.d.) Kim Kirkpatrick :: Early Work [online] at: http://kimkirkpatrick.com/GalleryMain.asp?GalleryID=97163&AKey=FGWAF5R9 (accessed on 11 April 2016)

Kuhn, M. (s.d.) Mona Kuhn [online] at: http://www.monakuhn.com

Wikipedia (2016) Kim Kirkpatrick [online] at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_Kirkpatrick (accessed on 11 April 2016)

Lens work 1 – deep field

Project 2 introduces us to two very different groups of photographers, those who express themselves with detailed images and deep field of focus, and those who use shallow depth of field to isolate details and direct our attention. This posting looks at some who employ maximum depth of field.

The examples given are the f/64 Group and Fay Godwin, although I believe they  used the style for different reasons.

F/64 was a 1930s group of (initially 11) photographers including Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham, ‘… striving to define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods. … Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form.’ (Group f/64 Manifesto, 1932, quoted in Wikipedia). The group’s name derives from the smallest aperture available on a 10×8″ large-format camera at the time. Their subjects were primarily landscapes or close-ups of items from the landscape such as pieces of driftwood, but the same treatment was applied to industrial items, nudes and other subjects not obviously related to landscape. The intention was to render their subjects as faithfully, and in as great detail, as possible. The examples below are an untitled nude by Weston and ‘Winter Yosemite Valley’ by Adams, both from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.

Weston was scathing of the Pictorialist school of photography in an essay ‘Seeing Photographically‘ (original s.d., collected in Trachtenberg 1980, 169-175) in which he notes that the early photographers, having no artistic tradition of their own, borrowed a ready-made style from painting. ‘The approach adopted was so at variance with the real nature of the medium employed that each basic improvement in the process became just one more obstacle for the photo-painters to overcome’. He was particularly rude about the use of texture screens, handwork on negatives and ‘ready-made rules of composition’ (It would be interesting to see his reaction to some of the heavily-Photoshopped images that seem popular in some modern camera clubs).

F/64 was, therefore an attempt to liberate the camera as a picture-making instrument in its own right, capable of establishing its own identity and own creative traditions. The group did not survive the Great Depression, but its influence remains.

Fay Godwin was a rambler (President of the Ramblers Association 1987-90), environmentalist and self-taught landscape photographer. Most of her images were made on medium-format monochrome film and were noted for their clarity, composition and control of total value; also for her tenacity and determination. As noted in an Amateur Photographer article (Clark, 2010), “When someone once remarked to her that she had been lucky to catch the ideal cloud formations in a particular picture she quickly replied, ‘I didn’t “catch” it. I sat down and waited three days for it.'”

The image above is from Godwin’s book Our Forbidden Land (1990) which deals with the British landscape and (pulling no punches with names and details) the way that tracts of it were affected by pollution, development or lack of access. Apart from some photos showing signs in the introduction, the images are detailed and sharp from front to back. Conventionally beautiful landscape images are interspersed with ‘shockers’ in a way that mirrors the detail and shock value of the text.

The deep-focus presentation invites the viewer to look at the entire image, without obviously being directed to particular points. Although inviting at first, it can become tiring on viewing a lot of images at one sitting if the eye has nowhere to rest.

References

Clark, D. (2010) Fay Godwin 1931-2005 – Iconic Photographer [online] at: http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/technique/fay-godwin-1931-2005-iconic-photographer-18907 (accessed on 6 April 2016)

Godwin, F. (1990) Our Forbidden Land London: Jonathan Cape Ltd

Hostetler, L. (2004) Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History – group f/64 [online] at: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/f64/hd_f64.htm (accessed on 6 April 2016)

Trachtenberg, A.(ed) (1980) Classic Essays on Photography Sedgwick ME: Leete’s Island Books

Wikipedia (2016) Group f/64 [online] at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Group_f/64 (accessed on 6 April 2016)

Exercise 2.7 -Wide-angles and deep focus

In this exercise we explore wide lenses and small apertures to produce scenes with deep depth of field. Of the mechanical exercises in Part Two, this is the one I found most difficult because I am uncomfortable with wide angles. I do not particularly like the associated image distortions and I find the backgrounds, although receding, are intrusive because of the difficulty in excluding disturbing elements from the frame.

All of these images were shot using an Olympus E-30, fitted with a 9-18mm wide-angle zoom. The 2.0 crop factor means that the 35mm equivalent zoom range is 18-35mm or ‘very wide’ to ‘short standard’. There is more variation in focal length than Exercise 2.6, where I mostly used 50mm (100mm equivalent) which I find easy to compose with. In most cases, the aperture was set at f/11.

All images were shot at ISO200 with aperture-priority evaluative metering.  This has led to some significant exposure variations within sequences, depending on the amount of sky included in frame. All images were shot in RAW and exported unedited (apart from resizing) from Lightroom.

Sequence 1 shows a recently-cleared piece of woodland. After the first two images, I adopted a lower viewpoint switching between foreground stumps and between portrait and landscape formats. The portrait shots emphasise depth but I found the arrangement of stumps became rather linear. In both selected images, the stumps form a zigzag leading into the frame, the top of which is held-in by a dark line at the base of the trees behind.

Sequence 2 is in a bike-park. The first four images are at various focal lengths between 12mm (24mm) and 18mm (36mm), after which I settled on 9mm (18mm) and varied my viewpoint. In this case, higher viewpoints (above handlebar level) gave a more extensive view and better sense of space. One problem is the pink bike at the left of foreground, which is intrusive when broken by the image frame.

In sequence 3, I was initially interested in the lifering and the rowing boat. Then the silver birch suggested itself as a third element.

Again, I present some non-sequence images that I was happy with.

Exercise 2.6 – Shallow DoF and composed bokeh

This exercise explores wide apertures, coupled with long focal lengths and close viewpoints to produce images with shallow depth of field. So far, so easy, but we also have to compose the bokeh rather than ignoring it.

Common technical details: all images are shot with an Olympus E-30, having a crop factor of 2.0. The indoor bowls images are at ISO2000, all others are ISO100. Metering is aperture-priority automatic.

All images were shot in RAW and exported unedited (apart from resizing) from Lightroom.

50mm (100mm equivalent) wide open at f/2.8, shutter speeds automatically set between 1/60 and 1/125. My selection is the final image. If I were editing in Lightroom, I would crop to eliminate some negative space at the right, open the shadows a little and set a post-crop vignette to ‘hold in’ the frame edges.

50mm (100mm equivalent) wide open at f/2.8, shutter speeds automatically set between 1/250 and 1/400.

50mm (100mm equivalent) wide open at f/2.8, shutter speeds automatically set between 1/100 and 1/160.

A few more selected images from the exercise:

Exercise 2.5 -focus flipping

I was pleased to find this scene because the two images tell a story. However, I have to confess that the story is a falsehood – the tree-trail in the background is not the treasure trail referred to on the sign.

Technical details: Olympus E-30, 50mm (100mm equivalent) focal length, 1/60 at f/2.8, shot in RAW and exported unedited (apart from resizing) from Lightroom.

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In the upper image, the eye first lands on the signpost pictogram, from where it could move in either direction. The natural reading direction (Western convention, left to right) of the white text leads us into the bokeh, where there are interesting but indistinct shapes and we drift back toward the sharp area.

In the lower image, we go first to the background elements (in my case, the group of tyres) and explore them. The lightest area is the lettering on the signboard, so we visit but are led back into the sharp area by the pictogram.

In each case, we go first to (and spend more time in) the sharp areas. In both cases, the feeling is that the signboard is foreground, but the tree structures appear as subject rather than background in the lower image.

This direction of attention by differential focusing is a device used in film, most obviously in a two-shot conversation to direct attention to the speaker.

Exercise 2.4 – Mugshot

This image was shot with an Olympus E-30 and 50-150mm (100-300mm equivalent) f/2.8-3.5 telephoto zoom lens. Settings, ISO100, 50mm (100mm equivalent) focal length, aperture-priority automatic at f/2.8. Shutter speed was 1/50 second. Minor tweaking in Lightroom, including a -13 post-crop vignette.

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The eyes are near the horizontal centre-line. The left eye is almost dead-centre and our first point of focus. The right eye is somewhere near the third-line. Mostly, the eye is held by the model’s gaze; the out-of-focus background directs us back to the in-focus face and the stray wisps of hair accentuate the difference between subject and bokeh.